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Movie Reviews: Beaufort, Horton Hears a Who!, The Unforeseen

Horton Hears a Who!
Blue Sky Studios

GO  ALL IN THIS TEA What is the price of tea in China? You’ll learn that and a good deal more from this gentle, highly engaging new feature — the first in 12 years — from veteran documentarian Les Blank, who here turns his camera on American tea importer David Lee Hoffman as he traverses the wilds of the Orient in search of new varieties of the famous seeped beverage. A Conradian adventurer in khaki suit and panama hat, Hoffman cuts a compelling figure whether tussling with Chinese bureaucrats about the advantages of organic farming over mass production, impulsively proposing a 12-hour trek to a local grower’s farm or meeting up with German filmmaker Werner Herzog (subject of Blank’s classic Burden of Dreams), who compares the flavor of one particular brew to walking through a forest just after a rainstorm. Along the way, Blank and co-director Gina Leibrecht offer a compact history of tea consumption throughout the centuries (including a discussion of 19th-century British “tea espionage” — who knew?), so that even those who can’t tell their green from their oolong won’t be lost. All told, it’s a lovely work in a minor key — no Ratatouille or Mondovino to be sure, but a valuable addition to the growing canon of slow-food films for our fast-food nation. (Grande 4-Plex) (Scott Foundas)

Blue Sky Studios

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Horton Hears a Who!

The Cinema Guild

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The Unforeseen

 GO  BEAUFORT What a pity that the people behind two radically different but equally peace-loving specimens of Israel’s increasingly lively national cinema — Beaufort and The Band’s Visit — got into a shouting match about which deserved to go forward for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards. (Beaufort won.) Like many in the current wave of antiwar movies, director Joseph Cedar’s film traffics in the mad illogic of battles whose long-forgotten purpose has hardened into mindless routine. But this hushed, atmospheric mood piece, intricately scripted by Cedar and novelist Ron Leshem, is no action picture — unless you count the steady put-put of Hezbollah shells landing uncomfortably close to a small army unit left to guard the 12th-century castle that in 2000 is all that remains of Israel’s abortive 18-year war with Lebanon. Led by a commander progressively unhinged by the attrition of his and his country’s heroic ideals, the men — boys, really — have little to sustain them but their own black humor and the dreary, absurd daily business of watching over nothing much. We learn just enough about the lives and dreams of each soldier to make us weep for the shocking egalitarianism of death, which rides roughshod over the cautious and the reckless alike. Cedar’s understated humanism renders all the more painful the unstated coda that, six years after Israel’s retreat from Lebanon, the wounds opened all over again. (Music Hall; One Colorado; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

 DOOMSDAY Remember that scene in The Warriors where the Turnbull ACs chase the heroes in a pimped-out bus? Whoa! And remember that part in Escape From New York where Snake Plissken pulls the switcheroo on the commander-in-chief? Cool! How about that showdown in The Road Warrior with all the modified hot rods? And the fast zombies from 28 Days Later, and the death-match arena from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Excalibur, and Streets of Fire, and Army of Darkness, and, and...and so writer-director Neil Marshall (The Descent) cobbles together his third feature, in the manner of a junk-food glutton topping a pizza with French onion dip, ice cream, and four bags of Cool Ranch Doritos. Actually, it’s a fascinating conundrum: How can a filmmaker take can’t-miss elements from a DVD stash of superior mayhem, smash ’em all together, and not end up with the most! freakin’! awesomest! movie! of ALL! GODDAMN! TIME!!! How? By not creating a single memorable character, decent line, or moment that wasn’t lifted from its context in a better movie. You almost have to credit Marshall for the rampaging senselessness of this contraption, which sends a lithe ass-kicker (Rhona Mitra) into plague-ravaged, walled-off 2035 Scotland to fetch a possible antidote: Somehow the director wedges in pus-spurting ghouls, club-wielding punks, human cookouts, motorcycle chases, knights in armor, and gladiator fights, while breezing past matters as trivial as the plentitude of gas in this post-apocalyptic wasteland. I still believe with all my heart that no movie with real car stunts, a tough-chick hero, and a severed head that thunks directly into the camera can be all bad. But this is pushing it. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

 GO  DYING TO LIVE Part documentary and part autobiographical memoir, Ben Mittleman’s Dying to Live follows the writer-producer-director’s battle with a hereditary heart condition while probing into larger questions about the nature of life. Matters of mortality drive much of the film, as the specter of death creeps into and changes Mittleman’s relationships with those closest to him. Then his wife and his mother both undergo their own medical battles, forcing Mittleman to realize how much his own sanity rests on the shoulders of his family. What begins to emerge from this medical maelstrom is a frequently touching portrait of personal idiosyncrasy, Judaism and life’s true value. The most endearing personalities in Dying to Live don’t belong to the filmmaker, however, but to the women — his mother, his wife and his aunt — who provide him with a sturdy platform of emotional support. The real menschen here are the proto-feminist bubbies who run the scene. (Music Hall) (Gavin Williamson)

 FLASH POINT Cops catch felons: That’s what passes for philosophy with Donnie Yen’s police sergeant in the inane Flash Point, a gangland thriller that’s set on the eve of Hong Kong’s hand-over to China but doesn’t go further than alluding to the seriousness of the contentious political atmosphere. Such phony gravitas is disappointing because the film is almost fun when it plays dumb: Not since Bangkok Dangerous has such exciting use been made of electronic music, and Wilson Yip’s colorful comic-book frames accommodate some sick action sequences and giddy non sequiturs. The ability of the film’s characters to inflict and sustain superhuman pain may not befit cops or Triad gangsters, but there’s a crazed elegance to all the flying limbs and the ease with which objects as big as tables are wielded as weapons. A thug with a ginormous blade lunges out of nowhere to slice a cop’s extended arm, a bomb is hidden inside the cavity of a fat-ass chicken, and a child is cruelly but comically flipped upside down and used as protective leverage. Too bad, then, that Flash Point treats its audience like dogs, making us suffer through routine, almost inscrutable plot points and inconsequential characterizations to get to these episodes, and as such reveals itself as nothing more than a dumb action picture with delusions of Johnnie To–dom. (Regency Fairfax; ImaginAsian Center; One Colorado) (Ed Gonzalez)

 FUNNY GAMES Click here for the full-length review by Jim Ridley. (Citywide)

 GO  HORTON HEARS A WHO! After the calamity that was The Cat in the Hat — one of the nastiest children’s movies ever made — you’d think Dr. Seuss’ widow and executor, Audrey Geisel, would never let a filmmaker near her husband’s expansively humanist worldview again. Yet here she is with an executive-producer credit, only this time on a movie I suspect both of them would love, albeit with minor reservations. Warm, playful and inventive, this tale of an elephant with a spirit as generous as his waistline comes juiced with the genially goofy animation of the folks who brought us Ice Age (and, less memorably, Robots) coupled with a respectful doffing of the cap to Geisel’s exuberantly wacky visual style. Voiced by Jim Carrey, Horton is a pachyderm so open-minded and empathic that he detects, then moves heaven and earth to rescue, a tiny micro-society (headed by Steve Carell) housed in a speck of clover from the clutches of a power-hungry kangaroo and helicopter parent from hell (a hilarious Carol Burnett). The catch is that Seuss’ storytelling depends on brevity and economy, a fact that opens any feature-length adaptation to the risk of bloat. A host of added characters works beautifully, but the scads of extra action feel like so much padding. Hang in, though, for the extravagantly operatic finale, whose plea for mutual understanding was written during the Cold War, yet ought to be graffiti’d on every door in the West Wing. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)

 LITTLE CHENIER Little Chenier is a tiny, close-knit Cajun community where everyone is connected by blood, old friendships or unforgiven betrayals. When Pemon (Fred Koehler), the mentally challenged younger brother of long-suffering Beaux (Johnathan Schaech), is accused of a horrible crime, the corrupt cop who’s married to Beaux’s ex-girlfriend (and still great love) is driven by his own jealousy to turn the town against the brothers. Abusive fathers, mysteriously vanished mothers and a trove of slowly doled-out secrets flutter through the story, driving the plot to its unsurprising conclusion. What makes this movie worth a lazy-afternoon rental is the largely wonderful cast (in addition to Schaech, there’s Clifton Collins and Chris Mulkey), whose solid ensemble work is marred only by Koehler’s gratingly ­clichéd depiction of mental disability. Where writer-director Bethany Ashton really excels is in capturing the complex dynamics of small-town life — the familiar routines and lack of flash that can lead to boredom but can also be meditatively soothing; the sense of satisfaction in an honest day’s work, even when crushing poverty is a fact of life. The film also serves as a kind of memorial for the Louisiana location where it was shot; the area was completely destroyed by Hurricane Rita (which hit three weeks after Katrina) shortly after filming wrapped. (Sunset 5) (Ernest Hardy)

 GO  NEVER BACK DOWN With a generic title like Never Back Down — what, was Action-Related Content already taken? — there’s no way this unlikely hybrid of The Karate Kid and Fight Club could set your hopes lower without scraping the Mariana Trench. But if you dig the eye-of-the-tiger genre — which rarely rewards anyone who can’t pick nits between Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor and Kickboxer 5: The Redemption — you’ll recognize director Jeff Wadlow’s brawny teen melodrama as a modest surprise: better acted than needed, better made than expected. Sean Faris, the evident result of that top-secret Tom Cruise–Ben Affleck–Adam Sandler gene-splicing experiment, plays the troubled new kid at an Orlando high school who gets a YouTube-broadcast beat-down from an upper-crust underground fighter (Cam Gigandet). With the help of a Senegalese Mr. Miyagi (Djimon Hounsou) and the bully’s regretful girlfriend (Amber Heard), the kid gets his esteem back and loses the chip on his shoulder — but the bully still wants another shot. Chris Hauty’s script hits every predictable plot point, but the engaging cast looks like a portfolio of future stars — especially Faris, a buff beefcake who’s self-effacing enough to make a credible underdog — and the bone-jarring fight scenes rock as hard as they’re shot and cut. Never Back Down may be just okay now — but trust me, when it airs at 2 a.m. on Spike between male-enhancement ads, it’s gonna look like The Magnificent freakin’ Ambersons. (Citywide) (Jim Ridley)

 PARANOID PARK Click here for the full-length review by J. Hoberman. (Citywide)

 SLEEPWALKING Joleen Reedy (Charlize Theron) is the kind of broad who has second thoughts right before nailing her date on the kitchen table while her brother James (Nick Stahl) pretend-sleeps on the couch — instead, she removes her daughter Tara (AnnaSophia Robb) from the only bedroom and continues the festivities there. Sleepwalking, the directorial debut of William Maher, is the kind of film that expects you to respond to this scenario with a sort of grim, Pavlovian determination, knuckling down for 90 minutes more of the same in the hope of some reward. Nearly relentless in its bleakness, Sleepwalking follows Tara and James as they strike out of their dead-end town when deadbeat Joleen buggers off. They wind up at their American Gothic homestead, subject to the relentless assholery of the family patriarch (Dennis Hopper), which is what drove James and Joleen away (and possibly crazy) in the first place. Stahl seems as adrift as we are within James’ utter blankness, and Robb — a naturally mesmerizing presence — hints at a better movie when feeling her oats in sunglasses and roller skates while two starstruck young boys look on. Theron and Woody Harrelson (as James’ party pal Randall) provide vitality against the film’s heavy load, but they aren’t around long enough to keep it from collapsing under its own portentous weight. (Selected theaters) (Michelle Orange)

 GO  SNOW ANGELS An unusually blunt melodrama by David Gordon Green, melodious poet of such sentimental delicacies as George Washington and All the Real Girls, Snow Angels introduces a pair of gunshots and then follows with a flashback narrative to account for them, crosscutting between the emotional bludgeoning of two unhappy couples. Louise (Jeannetta Arnette) is splitting with Don (Griffin Dunne), a self-absorbed philanderer and science teacher at their son’s school. Across town and miles further down the path of estrangement, Annie (Kate Beckinsale) has a restraining order against her alcoholic, suicidal, Jesus-freak ex-husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell). Caught in the middle are the two couples’ children, including Louise’s son Arthur (Michael Angarano), who falls for quirky art chick Lila (Olivia Thirlby). As always, Green’s sympathies lie with his melancholy youngsters, and, happily, his own heart is full of subtle instruments. What saves this heavy material from sinking into the familiar turf of the Small-Town Midwinter Tragedy is his ear for verbal idiosyncrasy and off-kilter conversation rhythms. The film feels transitional for Green — one foot in the interiorized indi e-verse of his previous work, the other taking a big step toward more conventional projects. In shaking off his influences and affections, will Green shed imagination and intuition as well? Snow Angels answers No — even as it poses questions about life and love that are hardly worth asking. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark) (Nathan Lee)

 10,000 B.C. No doubt, your history teacher failed to tell you of the long-lost Yagahl tribe, which apparently thrived on snowy mountainsides 6,000 years before Mike Huckabee believes the Earth even existed, and consisted of one Jamaican (Mona Hammond), one Maori (Cliff Curtis), and a whole lot of white people sporting dreadlocked wigs and dirt on their faces. The aspiring hero of this tribe was D’Leh (Steven Strait) — pronounced “delay,” which is pretty funny considering how needlessly slow the story sometimes feels — who risked everything for the love of the only woman in the world with blue eyes (Camilla Belle). Her name was Evolet, and we’re told that means “the promise of life” in whatever made-up language these people are supposed to be speaking. When Evolet gets kidnapped by evil “four-legged demons” (i.e., guys on horses), it’s up to white boy D’Leh to rally together various tribes of black and brown people to save his girlfriend and, as an entirely secondary matter, free a whole mess of slaves. Director Roland Emmerich (Godzilla, Independence Day) knows his money shots: Anytime he throws some mastodons or giant dodos on the screen for a little beast-battlin’ action, he has our attention. But his lack of skill with actors really shows during the long moments of downtime in between. Strait desperately needs direction, and doesn’t seem to be getting any. (Citywide) (Luke Y. Thompson)

 GO  THE UNFORESEEN A haunting meditation on hubris and the folly of claiming rights over something as elemental — and temperamental — as the environment, Laura Dunn’s billowing, imagistic nonfiction feature (executive-produced by Terrence Malick and Robert Redford) can be seen as part of a small but growing canon of ecological-alarm docs. But the qualities that make The Unforeseen ineffective as a shrieking call to arms — among them a tone that’s less hectoring than contemplative, a glacial pace that encourages reflection, and an unusual sympathy for the opposition — make it vastly more absorbing as a movie. Dunn traces the buildup and aftermath of a controversial 1990s development deal that threatened Austin’s beloved Barton Springs swimming hole, focusing on the deluded wheeler-dealer, Gary Bradley, who devised the 4,000-acre subdivision. Using archival footage and modern-day interviews, sometimes contrasted to poignant effect, Dunn lays out what neither Bradley nor his environmentalist foes could foresee — the collapse of the Texas S&L industry, the shifting winds of politics, and the impact of the developmental havoc on the springs’ once-sparkling waters. Through cinematographer Lee Daniel’s transfixing glimpses of the natural world and an agrarian lifestyle at risk, The Unforeseen ponders nothing less than what happens when we turn our backs on the divine. (Nuart) (Jim Ridley)


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